Movie Review: “Captain Phillips” (Paul Greengrass, USA 2013)

Back in 2006, director Paul Greengrass took a break from making mediocre spy films to make United 93 (France/UK/USA), a controversial but truly remarkable film that showed that the filmmaker’s instincts in building tension and allowing it to explode that had served him fairly well in those spy films could actually combine with the emotional depth and hint of intellectualism that he had previously shown in The Theory of Flight (UK 1998) to make something far better than his earlier work—a film that had something to say, knew how to handle its characters’ emotions, and knew how to manipulate the audience’s emotions. Since, he has returned to the spy series with The Bourne Ultimatum (USA/Germany 2008) and tried to meld his action skills with some relatively obvious intellectual content in the surprisingly effective Green Zone (France/USA/Spain/UK 2010) but not really returned to the depth of United 93.

Until now.

Story-wise, the film is interesting enough on its face. It’s about a US ship captain whose ship is attacked by pirates who then hold him hostage when their attempt to take the ship fails. The US government then tries to get him out.

Captain Phillips is a film about the destructive power of competition (particularly economic competition), and it never loses its focus even as it tells a taut, powerful story with multiple interesting characters and excellent acting. Greengrass is not content to tell the true story that would surely have garnered his film plenty of attention or tell the audience, “Hey, in case you have forgotten, Tom Hanks can still act.” Instead, he makes a point and pushes it hard throughout the film, exactly as a director should do.

The film opens with its title character discussing with his wife that he worries about their son’s ability to find work in an increasingly competition-driven world. He laments, “When I was starting out you could make it if you put your head down and you just did your work. But young guys coming up now, companies want things fast and cheaper. Fifty guys compete for every job.” The point of the film is made right there in the first few minutes and it never lets up.

Throughout, we hear the pirates, Phillips, and others talk about “playing games,” seeing everything that they do as a series of attempted “tricks” in order to “win” over the other side. The one exception—the one group of people who “put their heads down and just do their work”—is the SEAL team that actually gets Phillips out. There is no hint of game playing from them, even when they do use a trick. They show up speaking no more than necessary, carrying only the equipment necessary for the job, and showing absolutely no sense of any life beyond the mission or sense of humor or empathy. The first naval negotiator attempts to use sympathy to get the pirates to talk to him, and it doesn’t work. The SEAL negotiator stays completely business-like in his approach, and it does work. Keeping their heads down and just doing their work is what works, not trying to win some big game.

The Somalis explain that the reason they have turned to piracy is that the US and similar wealthy nations have taken away all of their fish, leaving them incapable of using their greatest resource—the neighboring ocean—in order to survive. Economic competition has driven them to desperation and led to the United States creating its own enemy. In the end, when Phillips exclaims that it’s not his blood covering his body, it’s an exclamation not just of personal agony at what he’s been forced to endure but a plea for exoneration from his own part in creating the situation as an agent of US commerce. It’s a cry of sympathy for his former captors, even as he feels the relief of his escape. That entire scene works as something more powerful and deeper than what could be a melodramatic and overlong ending because of the groundwork that Greengrass has laid throughout the film with his focus on his point.

Visually, Greengrass and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd use the same reliance on long takes and extra-shaky handheld cameras that they used to add to the realism and tension of United 93 (and that Ackroyd also used on The Hurt Locker [Kathryn Bigelow, USA 2008]) once again to excellent effect. They even add the extra element of using much smoother camerawork when showing us the SEAL team, again emphasizing the point that they are just keeping their heads down and doing their jobs. There isn’t really anything innovative in this work, but it is very effective at making the film’s point even stronger than it otherwise would be. They are a bit overly conventional in their use of color and lighting, but those are really very minor problems with how well the film does everything else.

The acting is another very strong point for the film, highlighted by an excellent lead performance from Tom Hanks. Hanks plays the intelligent, brave, heroic Captain Phillips with a remarkable physicality and strength that I would never have expected from the 57-year-old, walking with a strong upright stance and holding his shoulders high throughout, like the strong leader that he is. Then, after an already impressive performance throughout the film, he has to play that cathartic breakdown at the end, and plays it so gut-wrenchingly well that the entire performance seems even better for its presence. Meanwhile, Barkhad Abdi plays the only one of the pirates who really has any room to show any depth with an excellent amount of subtlety, giving us some insight into the tension and intelligence hiding just underneath his surface at all times. Nobody else really has room to do anything, but certainly no one stands out in a bad way.

Henry Jackman’s score deserves some credit as well, as it fits the mood of the film quite well but never draws too much attention to itself. At a few points, it really called to mind Billy Joel’s song “The Downeaster ‘Alexa,’” a song about a desperate fisherman whose livelihood has been taken away by industry. Throughout, it uses strong rhythms to add to the feeling of action and backs off to allow tension to grow. It’s a fairly restrained but excellent bit of work from Jackman.

Overall, this is an excellent film that hopefully will get Greengrass the attention he deserved but never got for United 93. It’s a film that has a point and makes it with every aspect of its work and every turn of its plot. In other words, it’s exactly what a film is supposed to be.

Movie Review: “Now You See Me” (Louis Leterrier, France/USA 2013)

Are you a fan of magic acts? Heist movies? If you answered, “Yes,” this film will disappoint you. If you answered, “No,” at least you won’t be excited enough going in to be disappointed.

In spite of the best efforts of Woody Harrelson to carry the film as its comic relief, it doesn’t work. Nearly every element of the film, from the poor story to the unbelievable overuse of terrible CGI to the incomprehensibly predictable and silly dialogue is seemingly designed to make as poor a film as possible, no matter how confounding a goal that may be. It’s as if The Usual Suspects (Bryan Singer, USA/Germany 1995) were re-written by a teenager who had seen one too many Penn & Teller shows (I suppose in theory there is such a thing.) and watched nothing but action films in his/her life—trying to be more clever than it can be while repeating every cliché and trope it can find, all the while animating its world with CGI instead of practical action, effects, and background.

The film attempts to tell the story of a group of magicians as they perform the greatest magic trick in history, a trick from an untold source with an untold purpose. It structures itself as a series of “magic tricks,” showing us “misdirection” that appears to be our real action while what’s important happens elsewhere. But it’s not the kind of deep, well-thought-out structure that Christopher Nolan employed in The Prestige (USA/UK 2006). Instead, it’s just an excuse to hold off on showing us important details until after every scene, then show us our magicians running away gleefully, then repeat the same thing over again. It tells us that we are always being misdirected but it ends up feeling instead like Leterrier and screenwriters Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin, and Edward Ricourt are making it up as they go along, and not doing so very elegantly, either.

Things start promisingly enough, introducing us to our main characters admittedly hamfistedly but enjoyably enough, with Woody Harrelson immediately standing out as the comic relief. However, as soon as the story actually begins, things start to go awry, as they get sent into a science fiction room of magical wonders to begin their series of tricks and then we immediately cut to a laughably CGI version of Las Vegas. Things don’t improve from there.

Visually, the film accidentally reinforces its themes of misdirection and unreality by overusing CGI to an absolutely ridiculous extent. Not only is the Las Vegas skyline fake, but so are most of the magicians’ stage effects, the film’s closing underwater shot, and countless other effects that could also be achieved practically. If you need to use CGI, it can be a great way to reduce costs without giving up completely on shots that you can’t afford, but this is a large budget film that’s using CGI rather than bothering to go to Las Vegas or even use one of the billions of stock shots that already exist of its skyline and rather than showing an actual stage magic act. CGI is its reality far more than there is any need for it to be.

Further, Leterrier and cinematographers Mitchell Amundsen and Larry Fong are obsessed with fast-moving shots to the extent that they will not give us any static moments or even slow down. The camera is always moving full speed, circling characters or flying over a stairway to show us a lower level. It hardly even seems to care about what’s going on, it’s so busy rushing through its various movements across the screen. I can’t help but think that they were attempting to hide the amount and quality of CGI that they were using, but instead it was just a constant visual distraction that made an already confounding narrative nigh incomprehensible.

On the acting front, we have the film’s only redeeming qualities. Woody Harrelson shines as the film’s comic relief, exuding the same charming sleeze that has made him such an effective bit player for so many years. Jesse Eisenberg also plays to type as a fast-talking, high-energy, arrogant jerk of a performer. Isla Fisher is a personality-less beauty but doesn’t do anything to get in the way. Mark Ruffalo also doesn’t have much to do but performs well enough. Even Dave Franco, clearly the least heralded of the film’s stars, and Michael Caine, the one with a history of poor performances, are fine with what little they have to do. It makes it easier on the actors that they have dull, one-note characters to perform, but the fact that none of them gets in the way is still a strong point for a film that otherwise has little in its favor.

This is not a good film, but what’s really unforgivable is how easily some basic elements of the plot could have yielded something interesting. How fun could a film about magicians using their powers of trickery to fool law enforcement as they commit heists be? But Leterrier isn’t interested in telling us that story. Instead he tells a predictable and pretentious revenge story dressed up as a magic trick. In reality, the only trick he pulled was making an interesting concept disappear.

Don’t watch this film, seriously. Save yourself the 115 minutes and the aggravation. It’s a failure on almost every level.

Movie Review: “Ender’s Game” (Gavin Hood, USA 2013)

I loved Ender’s Game, the novel. I loved it some much that I also read Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, Children of the Mind, Ender’s Shadow, and Shadow of the Hegemon (Currently, there are an unbelievable 14 novels in the “Enderverse,” so I’m clearly not the biggest fan since I have only read six.) even though there were only fleeting moments of being interesting anywhere in any of those novels. So, I went into this film with some major trepidation, knowing how difficult it would be to adapt.

Why would it be difficult? Well, first of all, it’s a story about genius children—Ender goes to battle school at six and defeats the aliens at 12, and the other characters are never more than a few years older than he is. (The film does what it should to get around that problem, simply making the kids older and never mentioning it.) Second, it’s a very, very violent story, especially for one that is mostly about 6-12-year-old children. Third, it’s a very complex, multi-stage plot. Fourth and most important, the truth is that the heart of the story is what happens inside its main character, not the sci-fi gloss around it.

In spite of the interesting science fiction elements and the relatively intricate plot, Ender’s Game is, at heart, the story of how nerdy child Ender Wiggin is destroyed by those around him. The bullying and torment of his brother and seemingly everyone else turns him into a violent, revenge-driven young man who kills his way through battle and command school, a revenge fantasy that surely strikes a chord with a great many fans. Meanwhile, the adults around him push a driven genius of a child into giving up on their goals repeatedly, though his attempts to give up constantly end up in him emerging accidentally victorious.[i] It’s pretty deep psychology for a movie that also needs to establish the setting and basic plot of the novel. Along the way, there is a lot of fun to be had in Ender’s tactical genius that’s born of his willingness to use whatever is at his disposal regardless of what conventional wisdom says and the continuation of his seeking vengeance, but it’s really the destruction of this child that forms the heart of this story.

Gavin Hood’s response to this problem was to excise everything about Ender’s internal story and even everything about how and why he is such a tactical genius and instead present a much simpler story: A smart kid gets recruited by a futuristic military to save humanity from an alien menace. The military trains him into a great leader using some painful techniques.

The problem is that Hood’s story now has no apparent point. While there are clear political points being made at various times (Colonel Graff has become President George W. Bush, whose father had not yet even been elected when the novel was written.), the film doesn’t focus on them and indeed seems confused about what its own message in that area is. The ending suggests that what Hood wanted was for the point to be the value of life, but it’s difficult to square that interpretation with much of what precedes it. Without a central point, the film plays as a simple story of military training set in a futuristic environment. Even for making a film of the basic story, Hood fails by removing most things that are interesting—he reduces the military’s tactics in training Ender to just, “Keep him isolated so he has to figure things out for himself,” he gives numerous very obvious hints that the final battle with the Formics (which he thankfully avoids calling “Buggers” the way the novel does repeatedly)  is coming far too soon for Ender to finish his training before it, he jumps through everything far too quickly for us to have any real feeling that we are going through Ender’s journey with him, and he tries to take the edge off of Ender’s violence.[ii] He even manages to mess up the ending, first by telegraphing that the final “simulation” is real (Which was an incredible, shocking discovery in the novel—truly one of the most dynamite dramatic moments I have ever read.) and then by including the final chapter’s material, material which was included in the novel only to set up the sequel, Speaker for the Dead.[iii]

Visually, Hood and cinematographer Donald McAlpine are really trapped with a difficult story that requires them to be at the mercy of special effects technology, and they actually manage to pull off the effects relatively successfully. However, when faced with moments that require little-to-no such technology, they fall flat, using CGI when it’s not needed and showing absolutely no visual imagination otherwise. It’s a shame, but they are able to handle technical hurdles and not artistic ones, leaving the film quite visually uninteresting.

Acting-wise, the film surprisingly turns out well. Asa Butterfield, fresh off of a strong performance leading Hugo (Martin Scorsese, USA 2011), plays Ender with a depth and intelligence that does not appear in the script, showing us complex emotions and even some real subtlety. Even Harrison Ford shows some restraint and plays his role as Colonel Graff, a much larger character here than in the novel, well. Hailee Steinfeld also stands out as a very natural performance, even if it’s a simple role as Petra Arkanian.

Steve Jabslonsky’s score deserves a note for just how conventional it is. It’s so conventional that you could mentally fill in a score on your own beforehand and end up right on. It’s not really bad, but it’s still uninteresting.

Overall, this is a bad film. It’s well-acted and there are still hints of an interesting story here, but everything that made the novel interesting has been removed, leaving a dull husk. Adapting Ender’s Game is a nigh-impossible task, but Gavin Hood was not up to it.

[i] He beats the two armies by deciding that he has no way to actually win and so if he goes through the victory procedure that may technically count as a win and even if it doesn’t will definitely end an unfair game. The film undoes that entire plot point by having Dap claim that getting through the gate is the goal of the game. He beats the giant in the Mind Game by becoming frustrated enough that he just wants to avoid the game itself and so attacks the guy in charge of it. He destroys the alien homeworld because he decides that if he sends his strongest weapon at the planet at the center of everything, it will be over one way or the other. In each case, he’s giving up and ends up winning by accident.

[ii] Admittedly, it has been quite a few years since I last read the novel, but I’ve read it five times, so I believe I’m right that he kills Stilson at the beginning. I’m certain he also kills Bonzo Madrid, his carcass sitting on the ship that he and Graff take back to earth. Hood instead has him just beat up Stilson and put Madrid (rather accidentally) into a coma. Ender thus loses much of the violent edge the book gives him.

[iii] I should note that the material at the end does actually fit with the story of Ender’s Game if you see it, as I do, as being focused on Ender’s internal struggles. It’s Ender trying to pick up the pieces of his own shattered psyche, and being far more successful in doing so than anyone would guess after what’s been done to him throughout this novel. That doesn’t change the fact that, narratively, it was only in place in order to set up Card’s next novel, which he oddly insists is far more interesting.